The phrase “to get one’s goat” means: To bewilder, confuse, or baffle; to irritate, annoy, or vex; to fuss one; to make one nervous; to get under one’s skin (as said of the chigger); to give one a pain in the neck.
Efforts have been made to trace this American expression back to a Greek source, but without conspicuous success.
The French, however, do have an expression, prendre la chevre, which, though defined, “to take offense,” has the literal meaning, “to take, or to snatch, the goat.”
Their expression is said to have appeared as early as the sixteenth century, and does appear in seventeenth century as well as current dictionaries.
Nevertheless it is most probable that American usage, traceable only to the early twentieth century, was of independent origin: first, because the French phrase does not have the same literal meaning, and, second, even if it did, the borrowing and literal translation would have been much earlier.
One account weakly explains our phrase as derived from the racing stable where, sometimes, a goat browses among the horses on the theory that it has a calming effect upon high-strung racers.
Deliberate borrowing of the goat from such a stable might thus be considered an unfriendly act, according to that explanation.
Be that as it may, the earliest literary quotation thus far exhumed appears in Jack London’s Smoke Bellew (1912), Chapter VII, “The Little Man,” in which the usage has nothing to do with horse-racing.
Here “Smoke” and “the little man” face the danger of crossing a rotting snow-bridge over a crevasse.
“The little man” crosses first and waits for “Smoke.” ” ‘Your turn,’ he called across. ‘But just keep a-coming and don’t look down. That’s what got my goat. Just keep a-coming, that’s all. And get a move on. It’s almighty rotten.'”